PHIL WIELAND: Exercising freedom of speech got tougher in Portage

2013-03-01T00:00:00Z PHIL WIELAND: Exercising freedom of speech got tougher in Portage nwitimes.com
March 01, 2013 12:00 am

What is it with public officials who aren't all that eager to hear from the public during what is purportedly a public meeting?

I know some people can get a tad obnoxious at meetings, complaining about things or speaking out on issues about which they are ill-informed or totally clueless. Some just relish the chance to speak at a public meeting even when they have nothing of value or even remotely pertinent to contribute.

But enough about the elected officials.

Some public officials seem to think the privilege of being annoying at meetings is reserved to them. The meetings are public only because the law requires it, and, because the law doesn't require the public be allowed to speak, officials are loathe to let them.

The Valpo School Board used to have this kind of elitist attitude but seems to be more open to public input these days. Unfortunately, the Portage Township Schools appears to have caught the disease.

By a 4-1 vote in January, the Portage board approved new rules for commenting at public meetings that are overly officious to the point of being anal retentive and unnecessary.

To speak at a meeting, one must fill out a form giving their name, address and telephone number and state whether they are residents or employees or if they represent an organization. Most boards and councils like to include names and addresses in the official meeting minutes, but what's the point of the other information?

If someone asks a question and wants an answer before the next public meeting, they can provide a phone number or email address. As to the other information, why would anyone attend the meeting if they weren't a resident, employee or representative of a group connected with one or the other?

Not many people attend school board meetings because their cable is out, and I have yet to hear of a case of meeting terrorists, who randomly attend public meetings anywhere they can find one to ask inane questions, make absurd accusations or launch vitriolic attacks on officials. That's Congress's job.

The board's policies state they recognize "the value of public comment on educational issues and the importance of allowing members of the public to express themselves on corporation matters." And they have a maximum of three minutes in which to do so.

If it's so important, relax and let people comment without all the bureaucratic baloney, apparently meant to discourage people from speaking. If officials worry meetings will be so long they will miss "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," the best way to give them more free time is for the residents to comment at the polls and vote them out.

The election board requires less information for public participation.

The opinions are those of the writer. He can be reached at phil.wieland@nwi.com or (219) 548-4352.

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